Meet the Exeter entrepreneurs who transformed their student loans into a £475k business

They even passed up a Dragons’ Den investment opportunity

Let’s cast our minds back to the cultural pinnacle of 2012: Imagine… Gangnam Style taking the world by storm, the unveiling of Gossip Girl’s identity, and Honey Boo Boo making her television debut. But in the realm of fashion, entrepreneurs and university students, Chris Rea and Tom Carson were birthing a new trend right here on the Exeter Uni campus.

At the beginning of his second year studying business management, Chris Rea spotted a gap in the market for high-quality, yet affordable fashion-wear tailored to university students. He first noticed this in reaction to the onesie trend of 2011, where there were few to no options between Primark and the major brands he set out to challenge.

However, Rea told The Telegraph how at the age of 20, he encountered the university student’s most frequent obstacle: A lack of funds. Hoping to overcome this, he enlisted his hockey teammate, Tom Carson, and the two had a right good brainstorming session.

In January 2012, as the second term of the university year began, they were due to receive their maintenance loans, each gifted a modest £1,250. They decided to combine this money and invest £2,500 into their new venture, founding the clothing brand Y1 (Young Ones).

Leveraging a youthful eye for spotting trends, Y1 quickly emerged as a new clothing brand across university campuses throughout the UK, and all thanks to its first bulk order of 200 onesies.

Rea and Carson, the founders of the business, generated £96,000 in revenue and achieved a profit of £36,000 in their first year. But they didn’t stop there. Little did they know that in their second year of business, they were going to tick one off the entrepreneurial bucket list.

In September 2013, Rea and Carson, aiming to expand their custom onesie business, made an appearance on the hit BBC television series Dragons’ Den.

With a nervous start (understandably so) Carson began to close the pitch by saying: “We’d really like to emphasise that you’re not investing in a onesie company; you’re investing in a new, exciting, and fresh clothing brand.” Stating, “as our brand grows, we believe we can set trends for all young people in the United Kingdom and globally.” To the delight of all viewers, they then invited the Dragons to don their designs, resulting in perhaps a Dragons’ Den once-and-only: Duncan Bannatyne wearing a onesie.

During the questioning portion of the pitch, Deborah Meaden expressed concerns that bringing a Dragon aboard could jeopardise the company’s very cool image of the struggling student trying to make it. She argued, “The minute you have someone high profile with all the cash to make it happen, you stop being the very thing that is making you successful at the moment.”

Oh, Debster, my eternally favourite Dragon, living from an overdraft has nothing cool about it. Please, take several seats, hun.

When all was said and done, Bannatyne was the only one to make an offer. Rea and Carson started with an initial request for a £75,000 investment in return for a 15 per cent equity stake, however they received the offer from Bannatyne of the full amount but in exchange for a 40 per cent equity stake in the business, raising the Exeter boys’ eyebrows.

In the conventional cheeky chat at the back of the room, Carson starts by saying, “This is exactly what your dad told you not to do.” Nonetheless, on the silver screen, they proceeded to accept the offer, but after the cameras stopped rolling, they rejected the offer. It’s a bit of whiplash, but appropriately, the Exeter student once again proved to always listen to Daddy.

Rea explained: “We said yes on the show but afterwards turned it down. Because on television it isn’t really a binding contract and we realised it was giving away too much of the company and we wanted to remain independent.”

Despite not receiving help from the Dragons, the two successfully grew the business, which last year generated £2.5m in revenue and made a profit of £475,000.

Originally pitching themselves as the “next big student clothing brand,” Y1 has since evolved into one of the UK’s top custom “stash” brands, offering personalised clothing for clubs and societies. Drawing on their background as former international hockey players, founders Rea and Carson have successfully tapped into the hockey market, securing kit supply contracts with 47 clubs over five years.

Now 32 and that much wiser, Rea has since spoken with The Telegraph to describe his experience with starting the Exeter uni-born business and offer advice to young entrepreneurs, particularly those at university. He pleads: “You always hear people say, ‘Oh, I’m going to start this business once I graduate,’ but I’m a massive believer in saying you should start at university.”

He continued to argue that “when you hear good news stories about graduates raising £150,000 to start a business, in reality if they were to start at university they don’t have that risk, they don’t need a salary, they don’t need office space and you can start a similar sized company for a hell of a lot less.”

All this reminds me of this year’s new entrepreneurial duo, Asher and Lucas, who have grabbed the attention of The Exeter Tab with their emerging chickpea empire, Los Hummus Hermanos.

Perhaps we’ll soon see them on Dragons’ Den further representing for the “struggling student brand”.

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